It’s safe to say that anyone can learn a little programming if they really try. As with any art, though, only a select few of us will ever become truly great at it. Accordingly, we decided to create a list of the ten best programmers in the world (in our humble opinion, of course).
I’m Jamie Lewis, and my consistently humble attempts to write my own applications have left me in awe of some of the incredible achievements made by other coders out there.
This list is going to cover ten individuals with an almost superhuman-like capacity for conceiving and composing computer software. While their contributions might be taken for granted today, it was only by combining insane skill with a potent vision that each of their dreams became a reality.
So, on to our first entry.
10. James Arthur Gosling
James Gosling created the Java programming language, one of the most popular and portable programming languages in the world today.
From an early age, Gosling had demonstrated an impressive understanding of computer programming. He even produced software for satellite analytics which was actually used in the University of Calgary physics department – all while still in high school!
He has also been responsible for producing his own version of Emacs and several low-level compilers. He made various contributions to developing the (long-since discontinued) NeWS hypermedia window manager.
9. Guido Von Rossum
Having helped to develop the ABC Programming Language during his time as an employee at Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica, Von Rossum decided to begin work on a descendent of it during his 1989 Christmas break.
This new scripting language would eventually become Python, one of the most widely-used programming languages in the world. Inspired by the syntax of SETL, another high-level language, Python emphasizes readability using whitespace and indentation, making it ideal for new programmers.
With that said, there are still countless large businesses whose developers solely rely on using Python to power their web technologies and APIs, making Guido another very significant figure on this list.
8. John Carmack
Perhaps one of the greatest achievements in the history of video games was the creation of the First-Person Shooter.
When John Carmack and the rest of the Id team were creating the technology that would power games such as Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, they had to pioneer some seriously innovative techniques.
One of their main challenges in putting Doom together was writing a system that could render texture-mapped objects in a pseudo-3D space fast enough for the average consumer’s machine (which, if they were lucky, might contain a 33MHz CPU!).
They achieved this by writing their own rendering engine. It relied on extremely complex mathematics, which was implemented using a combination of Objective-C and ASM. While a small team produced this code, Carmack’s prodigious capacity for programming allowed him to be the architect behind it all.
These days, producing a First-Person Shooter is much easier thanks to the number of ready-made 3D engines and advances in PC technology, but you should never forget where it all started!
7. Tim Berners-Lee
When Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web, he was essentially igniting the immeasurable potential of the internet with an incredibly accessible way to link and share information.
Before the WWW, Berners-Lee had created his own hypertext system called ENQUIRE using the Pascal programming language. It was used by engineers at CERN to allow them to work together on projects (even those which used separate data and disk formats, character encoding standards, and so on, which was a significant achievement at the time).
When ENQUIRE failed (which was apparently due to having to update both the destination and departing pages when creating links between them), Berners-Lee decided to work on a successor which any user could spontaneously update.
Combining hypertext, TCP, and DNS, he produced not only a working server but also a browser called WorldWideWeb (which was also the first-ever HTML editor!). Berners-Lee has since received several accolades for his work, including receiving a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II!
6. Linus Torvalds
While it’s always nice to write an impressive software application, it’s another thing entirely to write a whole operating system. However, this is what Linus Torvalds chose to do.
Starting with a Commodore VIC-20, Torvalds taught himself BASIC from the age of eleven. Eventually, using the C programming language on a PC running Minix (another Unix-like OS), he started working on the kernel of what would be his new OS, Linux.
The achievement of producing a working OS alone was impressive, but Linus did this at the age of 21 while still a student at the University of Helsinki. Even at that early prototype stage, it already had Bash and GCC support, making development accessible for fellow enthusiasts.
Amazingly, Linux has now become a serious (if still relatively minute) competitor in the world of operating systems; it is used in countless embedded machines, as well as Android smartphones and the Steam Deck gaming console, among other systems.
5. Andreas Kling
Andreas Kling is, in a way, the Linus Torvalds of the current era.
However, Kling took a slightly different approach to his project; he built his own kernel, then combined a Unix-style system with the aesthetic of late-90s Windows releases.
The result is his dream project, SerenityOS. In just three years, SerenityOS now has support for web browsing and can even play several video games (including, somewhat unsurprisingly, Doom!).
It’s fair to say that Kling is not the only contributor to the project, especially now that he has opened up development to other hobbyists within his community. However, it’s also undeniable that his achievements in getting the project off the ground are nothing less than herculean in scope.
4. Bill Gates
Love him or hate him, the former president of Microsoft has some serious programming chops.
From a young age, his aptitude for computers was pretty evident. For example, the local Computer Centre Corporation had banned Gates and his friends from a timeshare computer system around the time he was 13. The reason he was banned? Hacking the computer to gain free computer access!
Even though he may not have been as involved in writing the Windows operating system as other Microsoft programmers, he still made some very valid contributions to the code while also acting as the project’s lead.
Even Joel Spolsky, a former Excel programmer, has said that Gates’ technical understanding was extremely proficient. To quote the man himself, “you couldn’t bullshit him for a minute because he was a programmer. A real, actual, programmer”!
3. Terry A. Davis
Possibly one of the most peculiar and heartbreaking stories in the world of computer programming is that of Terry A. Davis.
Born in 1969, Davis began to experience mental health issues while working as a programmer for Ticketmaster in the 1990s. This would eventually lead to repeated hospitalizations and manic episodes. Around this period, he started work on his own operating system, TempleOS.
Comprised of over 100,000 lines of code, TempleOS was intended to be a literal successor to Herod’s Temple (the Second Temple). Davis claimed that God had spoken with him directly and instructed him to build the OS “for God’s third temple.”
As a technical feat alone, the project was fairly impressive. Even amongst other computer programmers and engineers, Davis was highly thought of for his abilities and persistence. Some even suggested that he could have been as prominent a figure in the tech world as Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak had he not been battling mental health issues.
2. Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson
Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson met while working at Bell Labs (where Ritchie’s father had worked as a scientist). Their friendship would lay the foundations for a partnership that would produce several technical innovations that remain widely used today.
Among these, they were largely responsible for the development of the C programming language (as well as its predecessor, “B”) and the Unix operating system. On top of this, they also contributed significantly to the Plan 9 from Bell Labs operating system, alongside Inferno OS.
While all of the entries on this list have made incredibly valuable contributions to technology, few can claim to have made as large a mark on the world of IT as Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson. In fact, there’s a good chance that they have in some small way contributed to your operating system or the games that you play every day!
1. Richard Stallman
Despite some of the controversial statements made by Stallman, his impact on today’s ideological computing paradigms can hardly be denied. We may take free software for granted, but it was one man’s vision that injected it into the public consciousness.
In addition to the idea of the GNU project (which was essentially a Unix-based operating system that relied entirely on free software), he also developed several of the core features of its backend. Likewise, his free implementation of the Emacs text editor is still actively used by countless Linux users today.
Aside from his software contributions, his continued activity in further ideological movements such as the League for Programming Freedom and the GNU Project are testament to his relentless enthusiasm for free and accessible software everywhere.
Programming has become so much more accessible these days – whether as a vocation or as a hobby – that it has lost some of its previously-held mystique.
We should never forget, though, that there are certain individuals who were so good at programming that they pushed the boundaries of technology to help create the world we now live in. A world where free software exists at the click of a button, often for free, and where we can communicate and create with friends worldwide whenever we like!
Don’t forget to keep checking back here, as we’ll be writing more editorial content and lists as time goes on. And, as always, please do share some feedback in the comment section, too! Who’s your favorite programmer?